Seattle Now & Then: Orpheum Descending

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: At 5th and Westlake, Seattle’s last of three Orpheum Theatres opened in 1927 and served up vaudeville, concerts and movies from its corner for 40 years. It has been observed that had the theatre made it for a half-century, the local forces of preservation would have never allowed its destruction. And the difficulties encountered wrecking it, suggested that this Orpheum could have stood 400 years. (Photo by Frank Shaw)
NOW: In a Sept 8, 1967 letter to the Times editor, Carl W. Kraft offered “words of comfort” for those mourning the loss of “the beautiful Orpheum Theatre.” Karl suggested that “late in the 21st Century the old Washington Plaza Hotel will be demolished and it its place a beautiful new theater will be built. It could well be named the Orpheum.” But Karl was parodying the mourners. His letter concluded with a run-on. “Late in the first half of the 22nd Century . . .”

Seattle’s renowned theatre architect, B. Marcus (Benny) Priteca, sitting in the “Louis XIV majesty chair” he had appointed for it 40 years earlier, and holding a glass of champagne as high as his eye, gave a “farewell toast” to what many considered the greatest of the more than 150 theatres he had designed: Seattle’s own Orpheum.  The champagne, it was explained, helped both the popcorn go down and the pain of losing the landmark.  Seattle Times photographer Vic Condiotty’s recording of Priteca’s toast appeared in the paper’s issue for June 19, 1967.
Architect Priteca's bitter-sweet toast to the Orpheum on the advent of its destruction
One week later the “majestic chair” was sold in the anticipated two-day auction supervised by Greenfield Galleries.  It’s proprietor, Lou Greenfield explained “everything will be sold that can be unscrewed, chiseled or blasted loose . . . You can buy a chunk of marble of the wall if you want, but the problem of removing it is yours.”  Greenfield added, “The dismantling of much of the theatre’s majestic interior will be impractical.  It will fall victim to the wrecking ball.”  That last observation can serve as the caption for the colored slide printed here at the top that Frank Shaw took of the Orpheum’s battered proscenium arch on the 10th of September ‘67.
The auction began on Monday June 26.  A day earlier the then 74 year-old Priteca, “In a reminiscent mood” – and candid too – was again quoted in the Times, this time by John Hartl. “Priteca thought the ‘modernizing’ the Orpheum had undergone in recent years was unforgivably tasteless.  ‘There’s some beautiful stuff behind that cheap cloth,’ he said pointing to the gaudy draperies that now cover the stage.”
Adver in the June 8, 1967 Seattle Times.
Orpheum marble had legs. Two weeks after the auction an ad in the Times read, in part, “Fine Imported Marble . . . All From the ORPHEUM. Bargain Prices.”  This time there was no indication that a buyer would be required to not only pay for and pick up the marble at the theatre but remove it from the walls as well. Some of that polished rock made it to a Queen Anne yard sale years later.  It now covers part of my desk.
Another Seattle Times look into the still lavish ruin.
Frank Shaw, who took the kodachrome slide at the top, also stepped across Westlake Ave. to look at the same subject over the Tsutakawa fountain at the Westlake Ave. triangle bordered by Stewart Street, Westlake and Sixth Avenue.


What a poignant story of loss, beautifully told, Paul. I know you have much to add this week.
Rather Jean we will hold back and give less than we might have, for thru the years, you know, we have featured the Orpheum and/or its neighbors many times.   For instance – and see below – three years ago this March we ran one on the Orpheum’s opening and, compliments of Ron Edge, also a copy of the elegant chapbook that tooted its production and anticipated opening in 1927.  Now Ron has brought the booklet back below with a link to it thru its cover.  Be patient for the download.  It is followed by another link – one to the recent feature of March March 13, 2010.   You may agree Jean that those three years have pass so impetuously that it feels like a punch in the body clock. But Jean, the title you have created “Orpheum Descending”  for this feature as it appears here on top shows the edge of eternity like a good classic and so for the moment at least we are freed from time.
Camera West photographer Bill Houlton engaged Seattle Rep. actress Pauline Flanagan to pose beneath the ruins of the Orpheum’s proscenium arch.   Below her two poses is another clip from the Times, an especially nostalgic one for older locals easily evoked by memories of the Seattle’s early Rep.   Our Jean who acted with the Rep as a talented and tall prospect long ago answered me “I did not know Flanagan, but I bet actors I acted with did.”  Surely they did.
NOTE:  At least on my MAC I need to click the clip below TWICE in order to enlarge it for reading!
Lou Guzzo, long The Seattle Times Arts and Entertainment Editor, gives a long announcement on the arrival of Pauline Flanagan into the Rep's players. The article is from June 30, 1963, a date with its own Golden Anniversary soon at hand.


Asahel Curtis' oft-used look into Times Square with the then new Orpheum.


(First appeared in Pacific, Sept. 11, 1994)

This portrait of Times Square is almost a potboiler. Well-copied and well-studied, even the moment of the photographer Asahel Curtis’ recording is known: Oct. 11, 1927, and, judging by the long shadows, sometime around closing time.

It doesn’t require an honoree of the American Institute of Architects to figure out what is so appealing about this image. Start with its centerpiece, the Orpheum Theater. Most likely Curtis was preoccupied with this palace, which opened in 1927. As the multistoried sign on the roof proclaims, the Orpheum offered both vaudeville and films. But with the introduction of “talkies” that year, the future of stage acts here and at other venues was bleak. Reading the marquee, “Varness, the IT girl of Vaudeville” and “Beatrice Joy in Dances on Broadway” may never have returned here.

Two of Seattle’s terra-cotta landmarks enter from the sides: the Times Square Building on the left and the lower stories of the Medical-Dental Building on the right. The former was home for The Times from 1916 to 1931; the latter, built in 1925, is still the professional home of many physicians. (Far right is a sliver of the Frederick & Nelson Building, built in 1918.)

Photographed in June of 1927, the construction of the Orpheum is nearly completion. The Times Square building is on the left. (Courtesy Ron Edge)

It is the diagonal of Westlake Avenue that creates these opportunities for landmarks to greet each other across intersections made interesting by their irregularity. First proposed as early at the mid-1870s, Westlake was finally cut through in 1906. Here at Times Square the city’s layout was made doubly engaging by its shift at Stewart Street.

A Bradley slide looking north on 5th from near Pine with Frederick and Nelson's west facade on the left.
A glimpse of the Orpheum from the Monorail's Westlake Mall terminal. Photo by Robert Bradley.
Robert Bradley's late portrait of the Orpheum with the monorail on the far left.
The hotel that replaced it with Gov. John Harte McGraw standing between it and the streaking yellow motorcar.


An early Orpheum marquee records its mix of film and vaudeville. "The Young Bride" with Hellen Twelvetrees was released in 1932. All Hoffman was a popular tin pan alley composer responsible for hits like Allegheny Moon, and Papa Loves Mombo. Hoffman was also part of a jamming team that wrote a song that still disturbs me - or delights me: Mairzy Doats. The lyrics are few and repeated, but still hard to spell, although not hard to remember - obsessively and a little bit daffy and divey. Here on stage are the Donatella Bros. They were still doing their tricks on other stages a decade later, as evidenced in the adver below pulled from a 1942 Billboard Magazine.
The Donatella Bros features with a small ad in the March 28, 1942 issue of Billboard Magazine.


ORPHEUM INTERIORS (Thanks to Ron Edge)

A Mighty Grand Lobby

Part of what surrounded and covered you once you took a seat.




This TIMES clip from August 15, 1967 reveals what a tough time the contractors had razing the not so old Orpheum.
Early hammering at the front facade and so approaching the lobby or perhaps in it.
Destructive entertainment across Westlake Ave.


The Seattle Times caption for this look into the exposed thorax of the Orpheum reads, in part "The Death of a Theatre' . . . A stage that had held entertainment for Seattle audiences since 1927 was nearly all that remained intact of the Orpheum Theater today. It is being demolished for the construction of the 38-story Washington Plaza Hotel. This view was from the 12th floor of the Medical and Dental Building. The Iversen Construction Co. has the demolition contract. Dick Iversen, project manager, said the stage will be gone in about two weeks. He estimated that it will take about a month more work to complete the project. Footings ... 25 feet below street level must be removed. Demolition began August 6."
A last look for now. Looking north across Westlake Ave and up Fifth Avenue in 1939 with the Orpheum upper-right.


Another stripped stage - where stripping was once routine.





3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Orpheum Descending”

  1. A beautiful theatre. What a shame it had to be demolished. Those interior embellishments can no longer be made because 1) nobody has the skills to make them 2) building it today would be wildly expensive – you’d never achieve that level of detail.

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